It is a peculiar fact of gardens that they can grow across time as well as space, and that gardeners can, in a sense, be drawn by their plants into the past.
Anyone who has ever nurtured a cutting from the lilac that grandpa gave grandma on their silver wedding anniversary, or planted some delicious, unnamed bean that a great-aunt carried with her from the old country, understands this botanical connection with gardens and gardeners long gone.
Laura Simon, in her collection of essays, "Dear Mr Jefferson: Letters from a Nantucket Gardener," takes her readers along on her horticultural wanderings between the past and the present. The two gardens that anchor the journey are her large kitchen garden in Massachusetts and the grounds of Thomas Jefferson's house, Monticello, in Virginia.
In the introduction, Simon explains how her urge to share her gardening experiences with a kindred spirit coincided with her discovery of Thomas Jefferson's records and correspondence about his garden. His accounts of horticultural activities struck a chord, and she realized that she had found a pen pal. Although Jefferson picked his last peas in 1826, her choice of correspondent succeeds for two reasons.
First, by addressing a person so removed in time, Simon can include historical details and contemporary observations about gardening to bring her correspondent up to date. She often describes how a particular group of plants has been altered in the intervening years, or how some fashion or tool has made a distinctive mark on the American garden.
Second, many of her letters are direct responses to something she read in Jefferson's papers. She shares these quotes with readers as well as including additional information about Jefferson's routine at Monticello, his travels in France and Italy, and his fondness for fine vegetables well prepared. By focusing on his garden, she has restored a measure of depth to a figure who, for many, has been flattened by textbooks' emphasis on great deeds rather than daily life.
There are 18 letters of varying length in the book, written between October and August and covering the annual cycle from planning to harvest. Three letters stand out for their excellent treatment of their topics. The letter of Jan. 29 gives us a fascinating look at trends in kitchen gardens in America, and how they reflect events in the society in which they are grown.
The letter dated Feb. 11 delightfully surveys seed catalogs from Jefferson's day to the present, and includes Simon's candid remarks about her favorites and her annual struggle to keep her seed orders within reasonable limits.
On March 23, she wrote about her own methods of keeping records of her garden and its development. In addition to organizational tips, this letter expresses her sense of the garden itself as a kind of record of the gardener. Among the rest of the letters there are many vivid and informative passages on topics as varied as the cultivation of asparagus, the gardener's concern over the health of her soil, the delights of tulips, the joys of transplanting, the importance of preserving heirloom varieties, the value of annual flowers, and the history of beekeeping.
A few of the letters are not as effective as the others, but the collection forms a sound and informative volume. The strong voice of Jefferson, preserved in his horticultural papers, provided his kindred spirit Simon with a colorful foil for her opinions, experiences, and historical expertise.
Anne Hollerbach gardens in Franklin, Mass.